Paris – Ile De France

Saint Germain des Pres Church – oldest church Paris

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Saint Germain des Pres Church district

Saint Germain des Pres Church is located in one of the most iconic districts of Paris.

The village of Saint-Germain-des-Prés developed 15 centuries ago in the shadow of its influential abbey, already renowned in the 11th century for its Scriptorium.

The district became one of the most affluent and sought after during the 17th century.

Louis-César de Bourbon, the son of King Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan, who was then abbot of Saint-Germain-des-Pres, indeed commissioned the restoration of the basilica’s Romanesque nave.

The abbey remained the centre of a vivid intellectual life in Catholic France until the French Revolution when it was pulled down and redeveloped; all that is left today is the church.

Foundation of the Abbey of Saint Germain des Pres

Saint Germain des Pres Church is one of the oldest Romanesque churches in France.

King Childebert I founded the abbey in 558AD. He built Saint-Vincent-Sainte-Croix Basilica, as the church was then called, on the ruins of a Roman temple.

The church’s initial purpose was to shelter a piece of the True Cross and Tunic of Saint-Vincent he brought back from Spain.

The first bishop, Germanus, dedicated the basilica on December 23, 558AD, the very same day Childebert died.

The abbey was renamed Saint-Germain in 754AD in order to pay tribute to the bishop, who was buried in the chancel.

Saint-Vincent-Sainte-Croix Basilica soon became known as Saint-Germain-des-Prés to differentiate it from the long gone Saint-Germain-le-Vieux on the Ile de la Cité.

All kings were buried in the church until the 7th century, when Dagobert I founded the Abbey of Saint-Denis in the north of Paris.

The Normans destroyed the abbey when they besieged Paris in 885-886AD.

Romanesque Saint Germain des Pres Church

The abbey and its church were rebuilt between 990 and 1021, however, were transformed over the centuries.

The chancel was enlarged in the 12th century.

Pierre de Montreuil built the Gothic cloisters, Chapelle de la Vierge, refectory, dormitory and the chapter in the 13th century.

These turned Saint Germain des Pres into one of the most attractive and affluent abbeys in the Kingdom of France.

The church was restored in the 17th century and the 19th century.

The Gothic vaulted wooden ceiling of the nave and 12th century chancel were painted during the 17th century. Finally, Flandrin painted the superb murals above the arches in the 1840s.

The oldest Romanesque belfry in France

The arched upper level of the imposing 11th century belfry was rebuilt during the 12th century.

However, its base is original and turns it into one of the oldest Romanesque towers in France.

Baltard (the architect of the former Halles) restored it during the 19th century.

The porch collapsed in 1604 but most original Romanesque columns remained intact, but the portal was replaced two years later with the current one.

These columns today frame the contemporary wrought iron gate Raymond Subes created for the church; Subes was one of the most acclaimed metalworkers of the Art Deco period.

The ghosts of Saint Germain des Pres Abbey

The Abbey of Saint Germain des Pres spread on both sides of the Boulevard Saint-Germain.

It was entirely pulled down at the French Revolution. All that is left (and is visible) is the 18th century presbytery and the 16th century Bishop Palace.

Paris City Hall converted the Presbytère into offices.

The Palais de Evêché flanks the church at no3-7 Place Saint Germain des Pres.

However, many surrounding buildings that were developed on the site of the abbey, still contain listed vestiges such as the 13th century cellars (not open to the public).

Medieval Saint-Germain Fair

The Galerie Commerciale-Marché Saint-Germain was built in 1818 on the site where the abbey held the Foire Saint-Germain.

King Louis II founded this renowned fair in 1482. It indeed attracted people from all over the kingdom and remained a major economical and social event until the Revolution.

The Rue du Four was opened in the 13th century. It takes its name from the abbey’s bread oven (four) that served the monks and the villagers who worked for them.

The abbey was fortified during the Hundred Years War (14th century). However, the crenelated wall, watchtowers and moats were pulled down in the 17th century.

The Rue de l’Echaudé replaces the ditch that protected the rampart, hence its original name Chemin-sur-les-Fossés-de-l’Abbaye.

Rue de Furstemberg and Rue de l’Abbaye

Rue de Furstemberg, Rue Cardinal and Passage de la Petite Boucherie date from 1699.

The abbey’s stables, at nos.8-6 rue de Furstemberg, were converted into flats.

Eugène Delacroix lived at no6 from 1857 to 1863; his apartment is today a museum dedicated to the painter.

Rue de l’Abbaye was created after the Revolution.

The abbey cloister, chapter and refectory – rebuilt in the 17th and 18th centuries – were located at the level of no11-16.

The monks’ refectory was transformed into an arsenal during the Revolution but was entirely destroyed by an explosion in 1794.

Most of abbey’s library was lost in this explosion and the remaining books dispersed.

The explosion also destroyed the magnificent Gothic Chapelle de la Vierge that stood at the level of no6-8.

A few vestiges of its portal were recovered  and are on display in the tiny public garden that flanks the Church in Rue de l’Abbaye.

A couple of benches were placed around the central lawn, where you can admire the statue of Guillaume Apollinaire by Picasso, Hommage à Appolinaire.

Directions: 6th district
Metro: Saint-Germain-des-Prés on Line 4
Coordinates: Lat 48.853798 – long 2.333328

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